Thursday, 13 October 2011

Fort Defiance - Chapter 17

He woke aching all over, as if all of the trials of the last days had come together and settled in his body over that one night. He raised a hand to his cheek, feeling the sharpness of the bruise from where Johnny had hit him more than a day ago. It seemed strange for his skin to feel the pain of a blow from someone who was no longer in this life.

He got out of bed and stood for a moment, disoriented. He had not taken the trouble to find out much about the room last night. He wasn’t even sure where the door was – but he knew about the window. He walked over to it with careful steps, a hand held out before him. There was no way of telling what time it may be without hearing something of the outdoors.

He pushed open the sash and put his head out into the cold air. No dust had been raised in the street and the air had the thin, damp feeling of early morning. He stood a while, listening, until he heard a solitary set of footsteps out on the dirt of the road. He coughed lightly and heard the steps falter momentarily, so he called out, ‘Could you tell me the time, sir?’

‘Struck six a while back,’ a voice called up. ‘And if you’re going to hang out of windows I’d recommend putting some clothes on before the day gets any lighter.’

‘Oh!’ Ned said, touching a hand to his chest as he remembered that he was half naked and this town was full of windows looking back at this one. He straightened up, banging his head on the frame as he did. ‘Thank you,’ he said to the man in the street, pressing a hand to his head. Then he closed the window and drew the curtains back over the glass. He was glad he didn’t live in town.

‘Ned?’ Ben mumbled from his bed. ‘Ned, what in tarnation – ’

‘Did I wake you, Ben?’ Ned asked apologetically, making his way back to his bed and feeling for his clothes on the iron bedstead.

‘Yeah,’ Ben said. ‘But I’m awake now, so there’s no sense in wasting the day. We’ve got plenty to do.’

‘Have we, Ben?’ Ned asked as he pulled on his pants.

‘You want to get married when Jane gets here, don’t you?’ Ben asked him lightly. ‘Well, you’ll want to talk to the preacher and make arrangements and all. Les Rawlins, the coach driver, said they might be running another coach from Willerton today or tomorrow now the Indian threat’s been taken care of, so I guess Jane’ll be here pretty soon.’

Ned sat down on his bed and shook out his shirt, feeling the seams to be sure it was right side out. He slipped his arms into the sleeves and began to button it up the front.

‘I never thought I’d be getting married, Ben,’ he smiled. ‘Never hardly dreamed it since I lost my sight.’

‘Well, I guess some good came from the Parker lot chasing us half way across the state,’ Ben said with a laugh. ‘Julie’s a nice girl. She suits you well.’

‘Ain’t she?’ Ned smiled. ‘I know I ain’t known her long, but I feel like I’ve been waiting for her all my life. She’s good and kind and clever, and I can talk to her about just about anything – and she don’t judge a feller by what’s wrong with him. And – I don’t know what she looks like, Ben, but she sure feels like a woman. I mean – what I’ve felt,’ he said awkwardly. ‘I mean her hair and her face and her lips. Oh man…’

Ben laughed. ‘She looks like a woman to me,’ he said. ‘And I mean the kind of woman you’d want to – Well – I shouldn’t go on about things like that, being married myself… But there ain’t no imperfections about her.’

Ned sat on the bed, his fingers absently tracing the meandering stitching of the quilt, thinking about that. Everything he knew about Julie came in snatches – catching the brush of her skirts against him as she moved, or the small sounds of her movements, or the briefest skimming touch of his fingers on her bodice as he reached out to her arm and misjudged. There was a feel of an unwrapped present about her. It would be wonderful to finally let his hands wander over that whole unexplored country.

‘Ben, you think we’ve got time to ride back to the ranch and fetch some things?’ he asked suddenly. ‘I’ve – well – there’s some jewellery of my ma’s I’d like Julie to have, and I want to get my Sunday clothes. I ain’t worn those clothes in a long time, but I don’t think I’m any taller now than I was.’

‘You grow any taller, Ned, and you’d be knocking your head on doorframes,’ Ben laughed. ‘Yeah, I think we’ve got time to go get those clothes. We can ride out to the ranch this morning and sort out all the details of your marrying this afternoon. The Willerton stage won’t be in til late anyway, if it’s coming.’


Ned’s Sunday clothes were clean and starched and smelt of mothballs. They had not been out of the drawer under his bed for almost five years and he couldn’t even remember what colour the shirt was. He had not tied a neck tie in all that time, and wasn’t sure he remembered how. But they still fit and Ben thought they still looked fine for marrying in.

It had been strange riding out to the ranch to get them. Even after a few days the place felt cold and deserted and Uncle Charlie left a vacant hole just about everywhere Ned turned. They had seen to the horses and tidied the house some, and then rode back as soon as possible. In some ways Ned was glad be back in the hotel with a fire burning slowly into the fireplace and without the thought of that shootout always echoing in his mind as it had out in the natural silence of the ranch.

‘Well, Ned, it’s about time to see that preacher,’ Ben said, clapping him on the arm.

Ned nodded, hastily doing up the last button of the clean shirt he had collected along with his Sunday clothes. He and Julie were to meet the minister in the parlour of the hotel, and he felt nervous as a cat near water.

There was a knock at the door and Ben went to open it.

‘All right, Ned, it’s Julie,’ he said, and Ned straightened up abruptly, feeling around for his hat.

‘Here,’ Ben said, putting his hat in his hand and catching his elbow to lead him to the door. ‘Don’t worry, Ned – it’s his business to make marriages. He’s not going to turn you away.’

Ned smiled thinly. He couldn’t help but feel that something must go wrong – that the minister would tell him he had no right to marry with his handicap to hold him back, or that he had not known Julie for long enough and they had chosen to marry too soon.

‘Ned,’ Julie said, taking his arm as he came to the door, and suddenly his fears were steadied.

‘Julie,’ he said quietly, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a small box. ‘Julie, I can’t pretend I went out and bought this. It was my ma’s. I guess it’s old-fashioned and I don’t know that it’ll fit you, even – but I think ma would be glad I was giving it to you. It’s her engagement ring.’

Julie took the box and opened it. For a moment she was wordless, and then she said, ‘Oh, Ned, it’s beautiful.’

‘It’s opal and pearls,’ Ned said. ‘Does it fit, Julie?’

‘Yes, Ned, it fits,’ she said softly, putting her hand to his. ‘It fits like it was made for me. See?’

He traced his fingers over her hand, feeling the narrow circlet with its setting of two small pearls and an opal sitting snug about her ring finger. She was right. It fit perfectly.

‘Then we’re ready to see the minister,’ he said, taking her arm again.

He walked down the stairs with her with great care. He never encountered stairs in normal life, and he was distracted enough by seeing the minister to trip and break his neck. But he made it safely to the bottom and walked with Julie into the parlour, feeling not that he was being led but that they were walking together.

‘Why, Edward Tallon,’ the reverend said as they walked into the room, and Ned took his hat off, flustered, and almost dropped it. ‘How you’ve grown.’

‘Reverend Tilman,’ Ned said, ducking his head.

‘I don’t think I’ve seen you in church since you were knee high to a grasshopper,’ the reverend said.

Ned opened his mouth, uncomfortable, and the reverend said quickly, ‘It’s all right, Edward. I know the difficulties of ranching. My folks had a farm back east. They barely made it to church once a month, if that. How have you been, Edward, since your accident?’ he asked kindly.

‘I’ve been fine,’ Ned nodded. There was no sense in recounting all the fortunes and misfortunes that had struck him in that time. They were too many to number. ‘Reverend, this here is Julie Morse,’ Ned said diffidently, nodding towards Julie. ‘We – we’d like to get married.’

‘Oh,’ the reverend said slowly, as if he had begun surprised and then tried to suppress the sound in his voice. ‘Well, that’s possible, Ned. I’m very pleased for you both. When were you thinking – ?’

‘Just as soon as possible,’ Ned said. ‘Julie don’t have nowhere to stay, Reverend, and she can’t come back to the ranch until we’re married, so – ’

The reverend was silent. Ned felt Julie’s fingers gripping harder on his arm. He knew she was thinking about where she had come from and why she had left.

‘Well, Edward,’ the reverend said, taking a few paces away and then coming back to stand before them. Ned could hear him scratching his neck. ‘I have to admit that your brother has handed me a good deal of work this week. We’re burying John on Tuesday, aren’t we? That’s what your friend Mr Shelby arranged.’

Ned nodded silently, a feeling of grief rising in his throat and mixing with his nervousness.

‘Edward, I’ll be honest,’ the reverend said. ‘I can marry you two folks on Thursday, right after we take care of your brother. That’s the only time I have. Would that suit you?’

‘Julie?’ Ned asked quietly, turning to her.

‘Yeah, Ned, that would suit me fine,’ she said, her fingers briefly squeezing on his arm and then relaxing again.

‘Well, that’s wonderful,’ the reverend said with a smile in his voice. ‘Come see me tomorrow morning, Edward, and we’ll talk some more about the details.’

‘Thank you, sir,’ Ned said, tentatively offering his hand. The reverend took it and shook it firmly, his hand soft and strong in Ned’s. He waited until Reverend Tilman had left the room and then turned to Julie with a smile breaking over his face. ‘Thursday, Julie,’ he said eagerly, taking her hands in his. ‘Thursday, and then the rest of our lives can begin.’

She reached up and kissed him, wordless and glad.

There was a noise of someone clearing his throat at the door and Ned broke away self-consciously.

‘Ben,’ he said. ‘We can get married Thursday. Day after tomorrow!’

‘Ain’t your brother being buried on Thursday?’ Ben asked him pointedly, stepping into the room.

‘Yeah, he is,’ Ned said, sobering. ‘But that ain’t no problem. I think I like the idea – kinda like Johnny’s going to be there. I think he’d be glad, Ben. He was glad of Julie and me taking up together.’

‘Yeah, I guess he would be,’ Ben said.

‘Ben, who’s with you?’ Ned asked suddenly, becoming aware of the noise of a second person standing with him.

‘Stage from Willerton came in,’ Ben said with a smile in his voice. ‘Ned, I’d like for you to meet my wife Jane.’

‘Oh!’ Ned said, stepping forward, his face dissolving into smiles.

‘I’m real glad to meet you, Ned,’ said a soft female voice. ‘Ben’s wrote so much about you.’

She took his outstretched hand and he shook it, feeling small fingers and warm skin.

‘Jane, this is Julie,’ Ned said eagerly, nodding back towards where Julie had been. ‘We’re going to be married day after tomorrow. Did Ben tell you that?’

‘Ben told me a little on the walk from the stage,’ she said. ‘Said we’re going to be setting up house together until we can move north and settle adjoining claims and start farming again.’

Julie was silent. Ned could hear her fingering nervously at her clothes. He could feel her hesitation as she wondered how much Jane knew about her.

‘Julie’s from a ranching family outside of Willerton,’ he said quickly, reaching out to Julie’s arm. ‘Soon as we’re married we can move back to the Tallon ranch and start sorting things for the move.’

‘Ned, I don’t have any dress that’s fit for getting married in,’ Julie worried, pulling her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. Ned knew that her dress was low-cut and sleeveless, made for looking pretty to drinking men, not for standing in church. She held that shawl about herself like a shield.

‘Well, you know I don’t mind what you wear,’ Ned smiled. ‘It don’t make no difference to me nohow.’

‘But Julie’s a woman,’ Jane said quickly, ‘and it always makes a difference to a woman to be married in a good dress. But I think we’re of a size, Julie. I have a lovely blue delaine you could wear – that would be your something borrowed and something blue. It would look real pretty with that dark red hair.’

Ned turned to Julie with a smile. In all this time he still hadn’t asked her hair colour, but he could imagine it being a dark, lively red. At the offer of the dress something of the tension seemed to melt away from Julie. Ned could feel the muscles of her arm relaxing under his fingers. Julie would talk to Jane about her past, he was sure, when it was the right time. He had heard enough of Jane from Ben to know that she would take it for what it was – a necessary move in a hard time.

‘That’s real nice of you,’ Julie said. ‘And my boots are old enough to be something old.’

‘And your ring will be something new,’ Ned said in joy. ‘It’s going to be perfect, Julie. You’ll see. There won’t be another wedding more perfect than this one.’


The stove was lit in the small board church, driving away the winter cold of outside. It felt like a snug, sheltered place after standing out in the graveyard nearby. Ned had felt divorced from the funeral, unable to see the coffin or the grave or the face of the preacher as he read from his book. Johnny was more present in his mind than he was there before him. He had been gone for so long, and had only come back for a few short days. Ned was used to life without his physical presence.

Ned still seemed to smell the scent of turned earth from outside where Johnny was lying, and where most of the Parker gang were lying or would be lying soon, but it was a good thing to him. It was a comfort that Johnny’s passing and this union were so intimately linked. The greatest reality now was Julie beside him, her hand on his arm and the soft sounds of her dress as she moved. His sadness at Johnny was a distant thing and his joy at what was about to take place rippled in the surface of his mind, mixed only with a lingering nervousness.

‘Would you like to move to the front of the church, Edward, and we’ll get you two married,’ the reverend said kindly.

Ned started as if he had forgotten that the minister was even there. He walked with Julie the length of the church, his boots making a hollow sound on the boards, and stopped when she stopped. His clothes felt stiff and unworn, and still smelt faintly of mothballs. The necktie was tight at his throat, tied by Ben’s steady hands. Julie stood beside him, before the minister, quiet and nervous too. Her arm was looped through his and he reached across with his other hand to touch the soft wool delaine of her sleeve. The dress fit like paint and both Ben and Jane said that she looked beautiful. She wore a gold breast pin against a flounce of lace at her throat, and Jane said her dark red hair set off the blue of the dress beautifully.

Ned listened to the minister’s words and said what he was supposed to say, but the only reality in the room was Julie, standing so close that they touched at the hip and her skirts pushed about his legs. He could feel her breathing, steady and slow and feel the slight tremor of her heart through her body. Her voice was soft and low when she spoke, and did not shake like his. He smiled as Julie promised to love, honour and obey him. He couldn’t see that Julie was the type to obey without good reason – but he was happy with that. He wanted to spend his life with a partner, not a servant.

And finally the minister pronounced them married, and his legs seemed to lose their strength. He could not stop smiling. Ben’s hand clapped on his shoulder and he and Jane wished them well, and then they were left alone in the small board church.

‘You all right, Julie?’ he asked her quietly, and her hand squeezed on his arm.

‘I’m just fine, Ned,’ she said. ‘Better than I have been in a long while.’

‘I guess we’re married,’ he said.

‘I guess we are.’

Her hand reached up to touch his face, and he could feel the solid gold band that he had placed on her finger, warmed by her blood and brushing over his skin. He kissed her, feeling as if this were the first and only kiss he had shared in his life.

‘Oh, Julie,’ he said as they broke apart, thinking of the Christmas tree with its swinging pine cones and the shapes of cut out tobacco paper. ‘Just wait til you see what we’ve got in the house for Christmas. You ain’t never seen nothing like it, I bet. And we’ll have Christmas together real soon. Our first Christmas together. It’s going to be like the first Christmas I ever had…’

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